Chapter 13

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Braeden woke up in an unfamiliar bed to an unfamiliar face looming over him.

"You're awake," said the face in a startled voice caught halfway between a boy's and a man's.

Braeden blinked, his vision clearing. He could make out the face's features now, the golden eyes that were neither kind nor cruel, the straight, proud nose and the sun-warmed skin as smooth and hairless as a baby's bottom. Together, they formed a visage that could have been carved from marble, a boy's face almost feminine in its beauty. The face of a stranger. Rhean nobility, by his braided hairstyle and garish silk robes. "Who are you?" Braeden rasped out and then winced. His voice sounded like it had been scraped over shards of glass, as broken and battered as the rest of him.

The beautiful boy scowled. "This is my ship, you know. Who the hell are you?"

Ship? He was on a ship? For a moment, his mind was a blank, and then in a flash of images, the memories came back to him—flying through the clouds on the back of stolen chattel, the imperial warship, and finally, Sam. He remembered saying something to her—trust me, he'd said, and even half-conscious he'd been tempted to taste the delicate shell of her ear—but the rest was a blur. He tried to sit up, only to realize his hands and feet were tied to the bed with rope. He could get up onto his elbows, but no further. Was he back to being a prisoner again so soon? He tested his restraints to see how easily he could break free of them. Easily enough, even at a fraction of his usual strength. Clearly his captors had no idea what he was capable of. He forced himself to relax. Let them believe a few fancy sailors' knots would hold him for now.

Braeden skimmed his surroundings. The cabin was fairly spacious, if you ignored the low ceilings, fitting two other cots besides his, both empty. Shoved into the far corner was a large, open cabinet, its shelves lined with glass bottles and flasks filled with multihued liquids. A big, hulking man with a bald head and full, bushy beard leaned against the wall next to it, his arms crossed over his chest, muscles bunched. His lips thinned when he caught Braeden looking at him. Braeden dismissed him. He was not in charge here; the boy was.

"Where is Sam?" Braeden asked.

The boy lifted an arrogant black eyebrow. "Sam, is it? You wouldn't be speaking of Lady Samantha, my betrothed, would you?"

Braeden felt a stab in his chest that had nothing to do with his still-healing injuries. "Sam...Lady Samantha is engaged? To you?" he asked hoarsely.

Those golden eyes gleamed with wicked amusement. "For ages now. Funny she never mentioned you, whoever you are."

Braeden grit his teeth. He wouldn't believe it until Sam told him herself. He wouldn't blame her for looking for love elsewhere, especially knowing what he did now, but him? The boy was barely old enough to tie his own bootlaces, let alone take a wife. A disbelieving snort escaped him.

The bearded man pushed himself off the wall and snarled, "Show some respect to your emperor."

Braeden felt his mouth go slack-jawed as he put two and two together. "You're Emperor Kazan?" he blurted. He knew Rhea's emperor was young, but the boy in front of him was still in the throws of puberty.

"Don't play dumb," scoffed the bearded man. "His Majesty's face is on every coin in the empire."

"That's enough, Lord Marshal," Emperor Kazan snapped. "You've told him more of me than I know of him." He tilted his head to look at Braeden through narrowed eyes. "You know the Lady Samantha well, it seems, we must assume from Thule. Yet you speak Rheic like a native."

There was no real question in there, so Braeden held his tongue. Silence was a weapon, he'd learned long ago. Most people couldn't bear silence for long, rushing to fill it with words they ought to have kept to themselves.

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